COVID-19 and a lack of foot traffic have forced many brick-and-mortar stores (some of whom were already struggling) to file for bankruptcy or liquidation. Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Pier 1 Imports, California Pizza Kitchen, Brooks Brothers, and Ascena Retail (which operates Ann Taylor, LOFT, and Lane Bryant) are just some of the most recent companies to close stores.

Online shopping has exploded, but as a result of increased demand, many online retailers are struggling with sales and support.

Problems for online retailers

It’s always a good thing when business is booming; however, as a result of COVID-19, many online retailers are encountering challenges around fulfillment and support. “Many were still working to move most of their business over to the online environment when COVID-19 hit, and the acceleration created stress,” explains JC Ramey, CEO at DeviceBits. And he says that this caused a fracture in those areas that were not setup for such an uptick in e-commerce.

“Those that were predominantly online before COVID-19 and those retailers that remained open are now more prepared for the volume.” However, Ramey says that some companies are still struggling with the initial overwhelming volume they received — in fact, some of his company’s clients have experienced overflow beyond 400%. “To add to this fracture, some employees have refrained from coming to work and some parts of the world acted independently with their own guidelines and responses to the virus.”

And for many businesses, all of these factors created a perfect storm of disruption in the supply chain. “Today we are seeing major volume spikes in the companies that were shuttered during the early COVID warnings, and now they are struggling with their own fractures, which are prolonging the effects.”

Negative effects of increased wait times

An increase in demand isn’t necessarily being accompanied by an increase in consumer patience. “Retailers are taking hours to answer calls or chats, while some customers are abandoning their purchase based on long wait times or poor customer experience,” Ramey says. One of his company’s clients has already doubled its support staff and distribution to meet the demand. “However, this comes at a significant cost to their business with no real outlook on the future need of that capacity.” Other companies are trying to project the timeframe for, and plan for when capacity will return to normal.

“This is an unprecedented time, and the recipe for how to get workers and capacity correct before the customer experience declines is far from perfect,” Ramey says.

Possible solutions

Self-serve options are one possible solution. “As it pertains to our business, we have been monitoring self-serve channels to predict volumes for our centers and/or agents while expanding the capability for the customer to answer more of their own questions,” Ramey says.

New agent training is another option. “This is critical for higher capacity or backfilling absence and lowering the training commitment time.” For example, Ramey says his company worked with one retailer that went from taking two weeks to train an agent to just a five-hour training period (from start to finish). “This is done by leveraging a Virtual Agent Coach (aka Chatbot for the Agent) to stand beside the new agent when they start taking interactions from customers.”

And the result? “This method has been proven successful in maintaining customer satisfaction and has improved conversions by 16% and average cart value by 7%,” Ramey says.

Written channels for sales and support can provide cost-saving benefits and also higher scalability compared to traditional voice channels. “These channels provide valuable data to retailers on the types of activities customers are trying to self-serve and the likelihood of success,” Ramey says. Companies can use the information obtained via these channels to make improvements and handle even more customer requests.

“These channels are also critical for the call center agents, as they provide the ability to automate agent response by taking the intent of the customer interaction, captured through the written channel, and popping the most likely answer to the agent's screen.” This type of screen pop could include knowledge articles, account information, and troubleshooting workflows.

Consumer response to chatbots

Some companies are moving totally to chatbots. But how well do consumers respond to this type of customer service? A 2019 report by Helpshift reveals that 83% of respondents were comfortable with chatbot-enhanced messaging — if they can be guaranteed an immediate response. This is up from 76% of respondents in 2018. However, the report also revealed that an agent plus bot combination tends to lead to the highest levels of customer satisfaction. In this scenario, bots are used for up-front interactions, and then agents take over when available.